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About the Event
What are your favorite hobbies or activities you do for fun?
Running, CrossFit, reading.
Highest degree attained
Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Science
University of Connecticut (BS)
Florida State University (PhD)
Favorite classes/coursework in elementary school, middle school, high school, college
Science and foreign language classes.
What educational accomplishments are you most proud of?
Being the first member of my family to earn a doctoral degree.
Oklahoma State University
Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Vertebrate Paleontology
Crocodile and Dinosaur Paleontologist
What does your organization do?
The OSU Center for Health Sciences trains future Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine and performs research ranging in diversity from developing biomedical devices, studying brain growth and function, and understanding the evolution of life on this planet.
What is your role in the organization?
I teach cadaver-based, Human Gross Anatomy to first year medical students and research the evolution of anatomical integration on vertebrates.
Describe your work environment
I work in the lab and in the field. Laboratory work can consist of dissecting and studying modern animals, preparing fossils collected in the field, or working with advanced 3-D imaging platforms to reconstruct, examine, and manipulate vertebrate anatomy virtually. In the field I capture and collect reptile specimens such as alligators and crocodiles to measure their bite forces or spend my time prospecting and quarrying for fossils in localities in the United States and all over the world.
What tools and/or techniques do you use in your job?
My tools range from the simple (scalpel, forceps, shovels) to the highly complex (high powered computer systems running advanced software programs for 3D imagine manipulation and computation). My biology and paleontology research also brings in engineering as a framework for understanding how organisms function. So, I often use large engineering machinery that lets me test the ways in which materials deform and fracture.
Describe a typical day in your job
When I am teaching my typical day will involve reading new research papers, meeting with colleagues and graduate students to advance ongoing projects, lecturing to medical students about human anatomy, and guiding those students through their dissections of the human body. When I'm in the field, my day often starts by waking up in a tent followed by quarrying under the sun or going to capture and collect living reptile specimens.
Describe an atypical day in your job
Some of the most fun days are when I am invited to give a lecture on my research either to a public audience or to a group of my colleagues. That's when all of that hard work pays off, and you're able to share with others this new thing you discovered about the world that no one before you had ever actually known. Hands down it's my favorite part about being a scientist.
How is the work you do important to society?
In the classroom, I am training the next generation of doctors -- a calling we need more of, especially here in Oklahoma. Generally speaking, my research is accessible to non-specialists because I study how incredibly charismatic animals make their living. But there's much more to it than that -- my colleagues and I are helping to put together the story of how life on planet Earth has changed across her long history. Understanding story will better help us determine the ways that she is changing today due to both natural and man-made processes.
What projects or goals are you currently pursuing?
Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences is building a new program in vertebrate paleontology. As a team my colleagues and I are focused on expanding our program by training the next generation of vertebrate paleontologists.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
More than 70% of the funding for evolutionary sciences in the United States comes from the government through agencies such as the National Science Foundation. Lingering effects of the recession, such as the recent budget sequestration, has reduced the pool of money available for research and made it more difficult to pay for the equipment, personnel, and tools to do high-quality and high-impact science.
What is the most exciting, most amazing, or scariest thing that has happened to you during your work?
Working with large alligator and crocodiles to measure how forcefully they bite (3000–4000 lbs) is definitely the most exciting, amazing, and scariest part of my job.
What would a teenager find interesting about what you do?
I unearth the remains of animals that haven't seen the light of day for a hundred million years, and I am the first person alive to see and hold those remains.
What's the coolest part of your job?
For me the coolest part of paleontology is the perspective it gives you on just how much of existence has come before us. There is such awe in appreciating the truly short amount of time mankind has spent on earth, and how much of her history we never got to experience.
What are some of the perks of your job?
Travel. I have been to Australia to work with crocodiles, Africa to dig up dinosaurs, and Europe to visit museums and collaborate with colleagues. It is part of the job to go where the data can be collected. I am also privileged to work with brilliant scientists who are just as excited to be at work every day as I am. It makes what I do feel as much like hobby as like a job.
What are the downsides of your job?
I don't consider this a downside, but a lot is expected of you in terms of thorough scholarship, training of students, publishing frequently, and finding ways to fund what you consider to be important questions in the field that should be answered to advance our knowledge of the world in meaningful ways.
If asked to "sell" this career to someone, what would you say to convince them to pursue it?
One of my graduate school professors once told me, "If you are capable of earning a PhD, then you're probably capable of becoming a lawyer or working on Wall Street. And making a lot more money in the process." For the most part I agree with that. I found that among the best of my peers, a career as an academic scientist chose them as much as they chose it. The sheer wonder of how the world works, and the excitement of being given the opportunity to figure it out—to those who are open to it, that sells itself.
What's something that most people don't know about your job/work?
There has been a shift in recent years, and many younger paleontologists, like myself, have degrees in the biological sciences instead of geology. This has lead to a real explosion in our understanding of the paleobiology of fossil organisms in ways that we had previously never thought possible.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your job/work?
Indiana Jones, while being exceptionally awesome, is an archeologist, not a paleontologist.
What personal traits make you well suited for the work that you do?
Tenacious, creative, passionate, organized, thoughtful.
Previous employers and positions that have lead to your current role
JASON Project Student Argonaut (1997), Project Oceanology Science Camp counselor, Saturday at the Sea counselor, NSF GK-12 science outreach teaching fellow, teaching assistant, research assistant, human anatomy instructor.
What were you like as a kid?
What were your favorite books/shows/movies when you were a kid?
Brave New World, Star Trek, Discovery and National Geographic Channels.
What did you think you were going to be when you grew up at age 12? At age 15? At age 18?
Since I was in elementary school, I knew that I would be a dinosaur paleontologist.
When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career, and what drove you towards it?
I used to draw a lot as a kid, and I started learning about dinosaurs to draw them, and I just became fascinated with them, with how evolution worked, and the personal realization of what evolution by natural selection implied about our place in the universe.
Who inspired you on this path?
Indirectly, Barnum Brown and his ilk for their tireless collection of amazing vertebrate fossils.
Why did you agree to become a STEM Role Model?
The JASON Project was a major motivating factor in my life that confirmed my desire to grow up and become a scientist. I owe some of my success to the people and programs that made my experiences as a Student Argonaut possible. I am more than happy to give back to an organization that was so good to me.
What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing your career?
You almost cannot take enough science and mathematics classes. As with many career paths these days, knowing how to program in one or more computer language is extraordinary helpful by giving you a fairy unique skill set.
What advice would you give students in general?
Whatever it is, do what you love. Do it earnestly. Do it uncompromisingly. You will forever appreciate where life takes you.
What are some interesting places you've traveled?
Paris, Barcelona, Sydney, Bristol, Okinawa, Madagascar